Filmmaker David Sporn’s CadreCinematique explores classic, esoteric, and just plain entertaining films. Nothing is off limits. Sometimes the column will be about a specific filmmaker or artist. Sometimes it will not specifically be about film at all, focusing on politics, literature, or philosophy that has influenced cinematic form.
Film is a pretty big subject. Douglas Adam’s wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really Big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts compared to space.” So it is with film. Welcome to the wild and woolly world of cinema. Let’s dive right in.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was in the midst of a deep depression when he directed Persona in 1965. The prior year saw the release of The Silence, the final film of Bergman’s metaphysical ‘faith trilogy’. The ‘faith’ films are heavy, serious films, grappling with big questions regarding the human condition.
Following the trilogy’s conclusion, Bergman was exhausted. He resigned from the Royal Dramatic Theater (he was also a prolific theater director) and checked himself into a mental hospital. The despondent director was near suicide. At the time, he was married to Käbi Laretei, but he did not live with her. Bergman was having numerous affairs, most notably with his leading actress Bibi Andersson.
A few months earlier Bibi Andersson had introduced Bergman to her friend, a young Norwegian actress named Liv Ullmann. Bergman became obsessed with what he believed was a striking physical resemblance between the two actresses. He summoned the two actresses to the hospital and pitched Persona.
Liv Ullmann would play a famous actress named Elisabet Volger, who had become mute due to psychological distress. Bibi Andersson would play Alma, a young nurse charged with her care. They would live together in a seaside vacation cottage. As they spend time together their personalities merge, almost like psychic vampirism, until there was a complete transference of identity, and the vampirism is made literal at the film’s end. We will examine three key scenes – the opening; a monologue of striking eroticism; and finally the film’s central disruption – as examples of the film’s intensity and elaborate self-reflexivity.
The film was originally titled Kinematography (Cinematography in English), and one needs only to watch the opening scene to understand. The opening sequence of Bergman’s Persona deconstructs the film image and our perception of cinematic reality. Bergman begins with the actual construction of the film stock.
The first image we see is the glow of a carbon arc lamp. Next Bergman cuts to an extreme close-up of a spool of film preparing to be projected. Much like Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov did years earlier with his pioneering ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929), Bergman is breaking down film into its corresponding parts. Unlike Vertov’s deconstruction, which was thoroughly mechanical, Bergman seeks to elucidate the process through which the audience views film. The film is fed through the projector, a process that is made strange by the harsh lighting and odd angle of the close-up. The mechanical adopts organic properties. The image of film being fed into a projector becomes at once both violent and sexual.
The projector endows light upon absolute darkness, a biblical representation of creation. Bergman then focuses on the screen. There is nothing else than black and white leader with some numbers scrolled upon it, fed through the apparatus. Then a brief flash of an erect penis penetrates the eeriness of the drawn and typed images, including numbers, words, and shapes. The penis may signify the phallocentrism of cinematic perception because of the intrinsic maleness of Freudian/ Lacanian sexual development. Or it may be understood as an imprint of Bergman’s male authorship on a film that mainly concerns women. Three of the four characters within the film’s base diegesis are female.
Bergman closes in on the film stock itself and we see an upside-down cartoon of a woman washing her feet, alluding to later scenes on the beach. The film jams and the cartoon character is left covering her eyes, a possible allusion to Elisabet’s inability to accept both her own life. career, and familial relationships. As well as international events that are beyond her control such as a scene later in the film she sees a television image of monks lighting themselves on fire.
When the film starts moving through the projector again the cartoon character starts clutching at her breasts, an apparent adumbration to the bisexuality of the film’s characters. The audience see hands manipulating the film, then more white leader. Bergman cuts to mock horror silent film clips from his earlier film, Prison (1949), an allusion both to the vampiric nightmares that are to come, as well as his own film history, and Persona’s measured artificiality. He also references Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, nodding to both film history and to the surrealism at work in both films. Christ’s hands are then nailed to the cross. To Bergman cinema can present anything and everything.
Finally, we are in a morgue, where a young boy watches the film. He stands in for us. The living and thinking among the dead. This boy bookends the story of Alma and Elisabet. Birgitta Steene, a professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington links the boy to the work of playwright August Strindberg, an acknowledged major influence on Bergman.
“The Boy in Persona, placed the way he is just prior to the master narrative, performs the function of a Bergmanian illusionist, a magician whose hand, moving across a screen door, becomes a wand that conjures for a woman’s face and transforms dead material into live images, which in turn initiate the master narrative at the moment the screen becomes a door in the hospital where Alma and Elisabet (the transmuted face on the screen) will first meet. The boy’s role, limited as it is in visual terms, seems enigmatic unless we see him as a consciousness who sets a product from the ‘dream factory’ in motion.”
Steene links the boy to the Vedic God Indra’s father in Strindberg’s A Dream Play, a character who is heard in the prologue but never within the actual diegesis of the narrative. The opening sequence is a journey through film history and Bergman’s psyche. The boy is a ghost forever outside the tangible reality of the narrative, akin to the sequence he will forever be within.
And so with the brush of the boy’s hand, we delve into the film’s narrative proper. At the cottage Alma speaks constantly. Mainly to break the oppressive silence. When she exhausts her knowledge of trivialities, and becomes more comfortable relating to the silent Elisabet, she begins to address her own anxieties and sublimations.
One night as the two women lounge about the bedroom, Alma describes her encounter with two boys on a beach. The only time she cheated on her fiancée. The scene is told only through dialogue, the camera alternating between close-ups of the two characters. Nonetheless it is one cinema’s most erotic scenes. The dialogue is explicit, the scene would never pass the American production code, yet is belies the myths that:
1 – Bergman is a stolid director.
2 – Cinema needs physical sensuality for tumescence.
Susan Sontag wrote, “In a sense, ‘Persona’ takes a position beyond psychology. As it does, in an analogous sense, beyond eroticism.” Except in this one scene. Alma describes sunbathing completely naked with her friend Katarina. Two boys watch from a distance. The more daring of the two boys approaches. Katarina undresses him, and “guides him in.” After a while Alma asks the boy if he is coming to her too. She describes how he “fell on top of me, completely hard.” The girls have sex with both boys. Then Alma goes home and has sex with her fiancée. She tells Elisabet, “It had never been that good before or after.” She becomes pregnant and her fiancée takes her for an abortion.
As the scene begins Elisabet sits up on the bed, smoking. Alma is on a plush chair, her legs curled under her. Bergman begins with a two-shot (a shot that contains both characters), establishing the geometry of the room; Elisabet straight ahead, but in the distance; Alma on our right, but foregrounded. Bergman uses this shot to set up Alma’s story, introducing Alma and her fiancée’s vacation to the beach, and Katrina, the other girl on the island. Bergman introduces Katarina’s favorite beach, its seclusion, and their sunbathing. The shot is held for slightly over a minute. An eternity in cinema. Right before she mentions the boys, Bergman cuts to a medium shot of Alma. This shot is held for forty seconds. Remember, the average shot length in a modern Hollywood film is just five seconds.
In her story, the boys are watching and Alma does not know what to do. In the medium shot we watch as she flops around the chair in a state of nervous embarrassment. Then Bergman cuts to a medium close up reaction shot of Elisabet in the bed. The reaction shot is shorter, although still unusually long. Twenty-five seconds. With a different director this shot would be painful. With Bergman, as the audience tries to comprehend Liv Ulmann’s expression, we are transported into Alma’s story. Bergman cuts to a close-up of Alma as she begins to describe the boy’s approach. He holds the close-up of Alma for a minute and forty-five seconds. In a single static shot, Bergman lets her describe the sexual experience including her orgasm.
Bergman now frames a similar close-up of Elisabet. The thirty-second static shot amazingly, seems short. He cuts to a medium close-up of Alma. She gets up and moves around the room. The first movement introduced to the scene. It’s not much movement. Just a short walk. Nonetheless, it is freeing. In her story the post-coital pause is over, and the characters start to have sex again. Action matched to movement. Bergman then switches back to a completely static frame, Elisabet close-up in profile. Then cuts to a wide shot. The first wide shot in the scene. Alma alone. Dwarfed by the room, as she begins to describe the aftermath. Bergman cuts in closer, behind Alma as she looks out the window, smoking a cigarette. She turns to the camera, her face filling the frame in a startling close-up, her eyes set past us focused on Elisabet; she describes sex with her fiancée, the best it’s ever been. The point of her story.
Bergman proceeds to break with reality. Using jump-cuts to a close-up of Alma in bed with Elisabet, describing the pregnancy and abortion. Alma looks up at the ceiling. Her face hidden in shadow. Elisabet leans over her, almost motherly, and her face is lit and looking towards the audience. Alma raises her hand to her forehead. Her forearm blocks Elisabet’s eyes, denying us Ullmann’s reaction. The scene is strikingly unconventional. The heat of the beach is tangible. The long takes add a sense of immense realism to the performances until the last cut when Bergman shifts to artifice. This film that Sontag labels “beyond eroticism” may contain cinema’s most erotic scene.
The Central Disruption
Much later in the film, as their identities fuse, Alma and Elisabet’s relationship deteriorates. This is where Bergman disrupts the film. The disruption comes after a long unbroken take. Alma sits on a bench outside the back of the house, drinking. Bergman frames the shot from a distance. The camera is around 15 feet down a path beyond the patio. Alma drops her glass. In an extremely long take we watch Alma slowly clean up the broken glass. After re-emerging from the house she sits down against a rafter and smokes. She finds a single shard of glass and positions it on the walkway. At that moment Elisabet emerges from the house. Bergman cuts to a close-up of Alma passively staring off into the distance, and then to a shot of Elisabet’s bare feet as she trudges back and forth along the path. Then back to Alma framed from behind. Elisabet’s movement is off screen. The suspense is building. He holds the shot, then Alma moves back into the house, and Elisabet steps on the glass. Elisabet stares back at Alma, it is clear she understands the other woman’s intent.
Bergman frames their faces, cutting back and forth, then as he lands on Alma one last time, and the film literally breaks. The film stock snaps. Then burns. All we are left with is white leader. Seeing Persona in the theater, one would believe there was a problem with the projection. The narrative has been disrupted. It has also been revealed as an artificial construct. We see snippets of shots from the opening sequence – the silent film, the eye, the nail in Jesus’ hand. We hear voices played at the wrong speed. Suddenly a curtain opens and we see an out of focus figure moving through an overexposed room. The figure moves to a window, the image suddenly snaps into focus. The figure is Elisabet. The narrative resumes. The story has moved forward. Now, however, we realize that Alma and Elisabet are no more than Bergman’s constructs, even if they are in many ways as real as any of us.
Persona is available on Hulu Plus as part of the Criterion Collection. It is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc. Find a night to watch it. It’s tremendously satisfying.